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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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The elephant in the Jewish room

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The bad news spin on the Pew report on U.S. Jewry has been pervasive, the good news spin not as much.

J.J. Goldberg of the Forward argues that in terms of numbers, the news is good. Predictions that the American Jewish population would dip below five million by now have not panned out. Instead, it has risen to 6.5 million.

But the intermarriage rate outside the Orthodox community hovers around 70 per cent. Factor in the Orthodox and the rate is holding at “only” 58 per cent.

The Orthodox dare not be smug at their relative good news. First, there is significant attrition within the Orthodox – low by comparison, but still significant. And the fact that 90 per cent of the Jewish population is not Orthodox should give them pause. Given the indicators, including earlier marriage and more children per family, the percentage who say they are Orthodox should be higher.

There is plenty of blame to throw around. If the product, Judaism, is good, why is the buy-in not reflective of the product?

This is a community issue. Everyone has a responsibility to make an impact, but no one person, or organization, can overcome this challenge alone.  

The Pew report leaves an empty feeling. Why, with the gigantic efforts of so many, is there so much drop-off from Judaism? Is there an elephant in the room that has escaped scrutiny?

Here is one unpleasant possibility. Ours is a generation that prizes happiness and contentedness. A truly Jewish home should offer that very happiness-contentedness mix. Surely there are many such homes. But there are also far too many unhappy Jewish homes in which the children grow up in fear.

That fear is often the result of abuse, a serious but still under-reported reality in Jewish homes. The upshot of this abuse often is the resolve of the victims to reject their roots, and either leave the fold entirely, or stay in a perfunctory way, but loaded with cynicism and disdain.

How bad is the abuse situation in the Jewish community? As bad as it is outside the Jewish community, approximately 15 per cent, across all denominations. Making matters worse is that Jewish women tend to stay two to three times longer in the abusive relationship, seven to 13 years rather than three to five years. Add to the abuse another 15 per cent (best guess) growing up in dour, sour, unhappy environments, and we have an epidemic of unhappiness that adversely affects Jewish affirmation in elephant-like proportions.

So instead of railing against the murky picture in the Pew report, it is more appropriate, and helpful to launch an assault against abuse. No rabbi should go more than a few months without that issue being a major sermon. No one who is aware of abuse dare be silent. No Jewish school should look the other way when suspicion arises. And the community resources available to abuse victims must become a priority.

We do this not in order to bolster the statistics. We need to do this because it is the right thing to do. And usually, when the right thing is done, good things ensue.

Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka

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